Koan: How do you pray your life?




summer_day_4-t2I’ve been wrestling a lot lately with the question of what to do with the rest of my life. Perhaps a bit more so now that Lent is underway. A season of contemplation. And of existential realities. How should I go about engaging with it in a manner that feels authentic and brings meaning to it? The poem “A Summers Day” by Mary Oliver beautifully captures this existential question that haunts me like a koan:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?


What do I want to do with my one wild and precious life?  How *do* you go about engaging with that question? There are many ways. The Benedictines have what is called a “rule of life.”The word “rule” can often have a negative connotation in today’s western culture. But its meaning here is a bit different. Its not a rule that can be broken as such, or that makes you bad if you fail to live up to it. Its meant as a guide, as something that gives some focus and direction. The garden metaphor is sometimes used in describing its function.

What do you need for a garden to flourish? Its not just one thing, you of course need good soil, nutrients, as well as an appropriate amount of water and sunshine. But you also need to consider other things. How large of a plot do you have? Do you have room to do lots of planting? Or is it more of a patio sized garden right now? What season is it? That will determine what can realistically be expected to flourish at this particular time. Also don’t forget about pruning things every now and then. Sometimes a little pruning is needed in order to bear good fruit.

This approach helps in both giving you a direction and narrows your focus. Back to the garden theme. You can compare it’s function to that of a garden hose nozzle that takes the water from spraying in all directions at once and focuses and narrows the stream.

Mary Oliver in the above poem commented that “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” but then she went on to describe her knowing how to pay attention, of the experience of falling down and kneeling in the grass, of being “idle and blessed.” That really struck me as being prayer *itself*. Her living as a prayer instead of merely speaking one. “What is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” Maybe that’s the answer to my koan? To live with intention, to live a life of meaning and reverence. To live ones life as a prayer. Maybe when you do that, the answer to the question “how should I live my life?” just falls into place, and the koan answers itself….


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